My Madurai travel memories have not all been so unpleasant. Although my previous post suggests that, I have been awestruck by some of the city’s old-world charm. There have been some snippets of exquisite beauty in the way life goes on there and in my eyes, it seemed unchanged through the centuries. The bustling Pudhu Mandapam market that is held within the Meenakshi Amman temple never fails to mesmerize me and I love how home industries are carried on within the dark, dim interiors. I have seen numerous tailors, costume jewellery sellers, traditional utensils shops, and silk traders going about their business within the complex and most of them have occupied that trade and spot for generations. It was fantastical to see mustachioed old men in crisp white lungis (a type of sarong that originated in the Indian Subcontinent) and neat bush shirts working furiously on old-fashioned pedal sewing machines, right underneath the watchful eyes of a carved stone warrior.
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Step into a medieval market
Fingers of sunshine filtered in through the intricately carved stone windows and they bounced off the glitter of the costume jewellery or broke out into prisms at contact with the bold flame of an oil lamp. These lamps stood on dark stone ledges that are grimy with time and the stone columns to which they are attached are intricately carved with dragons and buxom belles. Various sculptures of gods and goddesses received these daily offerings of lamps, flowers, and incense and they added to the timelessness of the scene. The covered market was a far cry from the bright sunshine and loud noise outside and sometimes the only sounds heard here was the rustling of ladies’ silk sarees or the murmuring of the shopkeepers. I always find this kind of space enchanting and to me, they feel like suspended in centuries. Just outside, however, a different world existed. Bare feet devotees rose up dust as they roamed around the open-air market that is held outside the temple walls. Flower sellers sat with their baskets of neatly garlanded blooms, their busy fingers stringing rows of tulsi leaves, fragrant white jasmine, pink roses (locally known as Roja poo), and soft orange Kanakambaram or firecracker flowers. A metal clang filled the air as steel dishes and aluminum idli steamers were appraised, bought, and sold. This sound competed with the cacophony of the autorickshaws as they dangerously zipped past scattering devotees and blasting local movie songs at full volume. To this, there was the everpresent sound of rolling Tamil syllables and the city of Madurai seemed to me in a constant bustle.
The colourful local way of life
This bustle increases as one moves away from the temple area and buses, cars, and scooters add to the commotion. Madurai travel is easy thanks to the superb public transportation system but this also means serious noise pollution in the city streets. The buses especially are equipped with a harsh-sounding horn and the drivers somehow take sadistic pleasure in hooting them constantly. The city teems with small businesses, canteens, colleges, and offices, and they all contribute to the human sounds of Madurai travel. The city’s busy markets are very photogenic places and one should add a visit or two to one’s Madurai travel itinerary. I didn’t see many of them and even missed out on the famous Banana market. The ones I saw, however, were delightful. The peanut market was lined with ladies sitting in front of baskets heaped with fat, brown peanuts and they smiled, bargained, and measured their goods in neat paper cones. The nearby fruit market was a sheer pop of colours and I love how the people of India have an uncanny ability to do everything colourfully. Everything seemed to be professionally colour blocked and mountains of green gooseberries stood next to bright oranges or ruby red apples. Only the hairy, bristly brown-shelled coconuts stood apart from this show of colours.
The human smell and nostalgia
Another interesting facet of my Madurai travel was experiencing the smells of the city. I am not ranting about the garbage or the belching of toxic fumes by the automobiles, but the human smells. I am talking about the smell of dust; hot stones baked by a pitiless sun; freshly shaved scalps lathered with sandalwood; a lingering fragrance of Mysore sandal soap; jasmine; ghee of oil lamps offered to gods; spices rising from steaming sambhar (a local lentil stew); grated coconut; the strong aroma of filter coffee and damp armpits. These all combine into what I recognize as a smell from my childhood; numerous trips to Srirangam, my father’s native place; and my paternal grandparents. Naturally, I am drawn to this smell and find it strangely comforting. It is one of the few constants that I experienced in my hectic Madurai travel and its presence soothed me.
Bow down to the wisdom of the East – at least for convenience’s sake
The other constant, as cliched as it may sound, was the omnipresence of the holy cows on the streets. I have seen them before and hence they did not hold any novelty for me. To my German husband and child, however, the presence of these massive immobile calm bovines sitting in the middle of a busy lane or walking down a traffic-chocked street offered pure childish glee and shock at our indulgence in these animal traffic rule breakers. Once they even got down from our autorickshaw to attempt to move one that sat blocking the lane. They shoved, pushed, hooted, made noise, and even tempted it with bananas. The animal did not budge and my Germans finally bowed down to the fascinating enigma of the East and its reverence for the holy cow. They did what the Indians, including me, suggested to them. They just got down from the autorickshaw, skirted around the cow, and walked on as the masticating bovine jingled the bells on its huge horns and swished away flies with its tail. Till today, this lesson of compassion is one of the highlights of our Madurai travel.
Madurai Travel Tips
A bit about Madurai
Located on the banks of the river Vaigai in Tamil Nadu in South India, Madurai has been an important center for commerce and worship for centuries. It is one of the oldest cities in South Asia and the Greek ambassador Megasthenes visited it in 302 BC and wrote gloriously of its splendour. Dating as far back as the 6th century B.C, Madurai traded propsperously with the Roman empire and it was owing to this lucrative trade that the Pandyan dynasty erected the mighty Meenakshi Amman temple. Dedicated to the fish-eyed and three-breasted goddess Meenakshi, the temple is a sight to behold. Known for its architectural magnificence, this 17th-century temple is spread over 6 hectares and has 12 tall gopurams that are encrusted with a staggering array of multicoloured mythological figures and are crowned by golden finials. In the olden days, Madurai’s old city was comprised of a series of concentric squares centered on the massive Meenakshi Temple. Today, the city has enlarged, rather spilled out of proportion. In the present situation, Madurai represents the two aspects of modern India. It has a center that lies focused on a medieval temple. Then there are the ever-growing offshoots that keep spreading away from the center and are more modern, prosperous, and less atmospheric. This side of Madurai is fueled by an economy that keeps booming due to IT and contributes to the hustle, energy, and excitement of a big Indian city without much charm. Despite these two-faceted characteristic, Madurai remains an important destination for travelers who intend to experience the cultural heritage of South India and enjoy its fiery cuisine. Madurai Messes (local word for eateries) offer some of the most delectable regional cuisines and the city is a shopper’s paradise. Whether you wish to purchase fine quality silks, handloom textiles, or brass utensils and decorative items, Madurai travel is incomplete without a bit of retail indulgence.
How to Reach
This city is well connected by air, road, and rail making Madurai travel a breeze. The international Airport is about 14km from the city center. It is connected by several national and state highways that pass through the city and the district. The city is an important junction on the Southern Railway and is easily connected to Chennai, Mumbai, and other major Indian cities.
Best Time to Visit
Madurai can be visited round the year. The summer months range from March till September and are extremely hot. The best time for visiting Madurai is from December to February when the weather is milder. Even then, expect warm temperatures during the day.
How many days in Madurai
I found 2-3 days enough for experiencing Madurai at a slow pace. Some people even manage to see the highlights on a 1-day trip. The number of days spent in the city depends completely on how you like Madurai and the pace of your travel.
Things to see during your Madurai travel
- Meenakshi Amman temple: Sri Meenakshi Temple is undoubtedly the most important highlight of Madurai. You don’t need to love architecture to be amazed by this vast complex. One of the largest temple complexes in India, this temple is enclosed by a 6m-high wall and is equipped with modern security measures to match. For the first-time visitor, this vast complex is like a maze with a confusing array of shrines, sculptures, and colonnades. Add to that, an approximate number of 33,000 sculptures to arrest your attention and you will understand why this temple is hard to forget. It also offers a glimpse of the tantalizing local temple life with its endless rounds of puja ceremonies at fixed hours, loud nagaswaram and tavil music, dazzling weddings, brahmin boys under religious instruction in the Vedas, the prostrations of countless devotees, and the glittering market stalls inside the east entrance. To get a grip, it is important to remember that Meenakshi Amman Temple is a complex with many different buildings. There is a North, South, East & West side along with their corresponding gates. Also, remember that the four streets surrounding the temple are pedestrian-only. Temple dress codes and security demand that no shoulders or legs (of either gender) may be exposed, and no bags or cameras are allowed inside. People from all over the world can enter the complex. However only Hindus can enter the main inner temple for worship. Be prepared to be pushed, shoved, and wait in long queues. The Sri Meenakshi temple opening times are 0900 am – 0700 pm. Entrance fees are Ts 5 for Indians and Rs 50 for foreigners. For more information, check out the temple’s official website.
- Pudhu Mandapa: I simply loved this market. It has an aura of timelessness. One of the oldest markets in Tamil Nadu, Pudhu Mandapa is located in a 16th-century pillared hall that stands outside the Meenakshi Amman Temple, opposite the eastern gopuram. The beautiful historic hall is full of intricate carvings and choc-a-bloc crammed with colourful textile and crafts stalls and tailors at sewing machines.
- Tirumalai Nayak Palace: I visited this palace on my first visit and completely skipped it on my second trip. It is not overly impressive but is worth an afternoon for first-time visitors. The architecture is a mix of Islamic and Dravidian styles and the throne chamber is grand. Opening Hours – 9 am-1 pm and 1.30-5 pm and Entrance Fees and camera/video charges – Indian Rs 10/50, Foreigners – Rs 30/100
- Gandhi Memorial Museum: This museum is housed inside a beautiful 17th-century palace that once belonged to a Nayak queen. It showcases moving details of Gandhi’s life and India’s struggle for independence. The highlight is the blood-stained dhoti that Gandhi had worn when he was assassinated in 1948. Opening Hours – 10 am – 1 pm and 2-5.45 pm and the Camera Fee is Rs 50.
- Photogenic local markets of Madurai: Local markets offer excellent glimpses of the way of living in a place. They are usually very photogenic as well. Madurai has some interesting local markets that are worth visiting. Culture and/or photography lovers may enjoy them very much. The most famous one is the banana market in Rukmanipalayam. You can see almost 16 different varieties of bananas here, including the red, yellow, and green ones, and even sample some of them. Go there in the mornings to see the trading action. It is open from 0900 am – 0700 pm. Other extremely photogenic local markets to include in your Madurai travel are the Mattuthavani flower market and the Onion Market வெங்காய சந்தை at East Marret Street.
- Shopping: Madurai has a name for its handicrafts and some of the choicest ones can be discovered at Pudhu Mandapa, Avani Moola Street, and Chithirai Street. Pudhu Mandapa is especially famous for skilled tailors. Just buy yourself lengths of silk or handloom textile locally and get them stitched at Pudhu Mandapa. That way you get tailor-made garments on a budget and support the local economy.
Where to Stay
Madurai offers a wide of accommodations. These range from comfortable budget hostels like Lost Hostel, and midrange hotels like Moskva Hotel to high-end properties like Heritage Madurai and Gateway Hotel. I stayed at the Moskva Hotel both times and found it conveniently located, clean, and comfortable.
Madurai has a well-developed public transportation system like buses, taxis, and autorickshaws. The city also has its own train station right in the center. It is called Madurai Junction Train Station and is a mainline station. Most regional and national trains stop here. The most convenient mode of transportation, however, to move around the city, is to hire a taxi or an autorickshaw for the entire day. Inform the driver of your itinerary, agree on the fare, and enjoy a hassle-free travel experience. I recommend walking around the backstreets of Madurai. Some lanes have very beautiful old buildings that colourfully painted and resplendent with intricately made rangoli (rice powder hand-made floor decoration)on the street front.
Because of its strategic location, Madurai offers a wide range of destinations to move onwards to. I traveled in from Cochin and flew onward to Kannur. Many travelers go to other Tamil towns like Tanjore, Sreerangam, or Chennai. Many cross state borders and go to Karnataka or Kerala. I recommend going to Pondicherry or the Thekkady National Park to recharge your batteries after the urban bustle.
Go food crazy on your Madurai travel
Although a huge attraction for many travelers, I have kept this section separate because Madurai’s gastronomical delights deserve special mention. Although a Hindu pilgrimage town, Madurai is big on meat and is famous for its non-vegetarian food. The city abounds with delicious street food options and there are scores of ‘mess’ (restaurants). The word tickled my sense of humour intensely because a Madurai mess is not the prettiest place to eat. Read grimy tables, mostly taciturn waiters, a slow-moving ceiling fan, and a small TV that is constantly on. You share your table with other diners and pay tuppence for excellent local meals. Madurai mess undoubtedly serves some of the finest Tamil dishes. Because of the high demand and a huge following of regular customers, Madurai mess food is daily freshly made, delicious, filling, and cheap. Some of the dishes not to be missed during your Madurai travel are Kari Dosai (with layers of egg and mutton), Kola Urundai (spicy meatball), prawn biryani, Bun Parotta, and Jigarthanda (a slightly overly sweet drink essentially made of milk, ice-cream, and fruit gum). During our entire Madurai travel, we ate our every meal at a Madurai mess and never got sick. For a slightly upmarket feel and the blessed air-conditioning, try the excellent Amma Mess on KK Nagar. Other popular Madurai Mess are Chandran Mess on Alagar Kovil Main road (for Kola Urundai spicy meatball), and Konar Mess at Simmakkal (for Kari or mutton Dosa). For an insightful and extremely photogenic local experience, book a tour with Vanakkam Madurai
Follow the rest of the Tamil Nadu series
- TAMIL NADU TRIPPIN’
- MYSTERY OF SEVEN PAGODAS
- TOWARDS TRICHY
- TRICHY, TANJORE AND CHOLAN EMPIRE
- SRIRANGAM SAGA
- ROYAL PRIDE OF TANJORE
- SRIRANGAM TEMPLE: EPITOME OF MYTHS, BEAUTY
- MADURAI, MY PET PEEVE
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE